single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Victor hadn't seen his father in a few years, only talked to him on the telephone once or twice, but there was still a genetic pain, which was soon to be pain as real and immediate as a broken bone.

Victor is not close to his father, but when he finds out about his father’s death at the beginning of the story, he feels an immediate sense of pain. This pain is partly about losing his father, but it is also partly an extension of the pain Victor feels about the way his family has lost its sense of belonging and its place in the world over generations. That is why it is “genetic,” as Alexie writes. Victor’s pain has almost a physical component, and it is what drives him to try to claim his father’s body in Phoenix. Bringing his father home to the reservation is a way of righting the past—of returning his father home after his father left his family—and restoring the rightful genetic order of the family.

There were these two Indian boys who wanted to be warriors. But it was too late to be warriors in the old way. All the horses were gone. So the two Indian boys stole a car and drove to the city. They parked the stolen car in front of the police station and hitchhiked back home to the reservation.

This is part of a story that Thomas tells Victor when they are boys. They have just watched the meager fireworks display on their reservation (which symbolizes the short shrift they have been given in both in the development of America as a country and in modern American society). This story expresses their desire to be heroes in a culture and time that do not permit them to be heroes. Rather than being true Indigenous warriors, the boys in the story (who represent Victor and Thomas) have to steal a car and return it. There are no real ways for them to be heroic, but, as adults, their reclaiming of Victor’s father’s body is a way that they can be heroic.

And your father will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home. It will be beautiful. His teeth will shine like silver, like a rainbow. He will rise, Victor, he will rise.

At the end of the story, Thomas plans to scatter some of Victor’s father’s ashes in Spokane Falls. He believes that this action will cause Victor’s father to rise again: to be reborn in spirit. He says that Victor’s father will leap like a salmon (known for swimming upstream in order to come home). In this way, Victor’s father, who long ago left his family, will be able to return home spiritually. Thomas has long dreamed of flying; he jumped off the roof of the tribal school when he was young but wound up only breaking his arm in two places. However, he now has the ability to allow Victor’s father to truly fly as a spirit.

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